Wednesday, April 1, 2009

April 1, 2009

John McCain is a happy warrior when he has a good cause. He has one these days. He thinks the President should pardon Jack Johnson, who was America's first black heavyweight boxing champion a very long time ago.

Johnson won the championship in 1908 when the referee stopped his fight with the Canadian champion, Tommy Burns. This lead, in those more racist times, to a search for a "Great White Hope" to beat Johnson. A former titleholder, Jim Jeffries, came out of retirement, but Johnson beat him in a fight called "The Battle of the Century." Riots followed.

Johnson finally lost the title in 1915, but he'd held it for seven years. In 1913, he was convicted of violating the Mann Act, which outlawed transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes. The woman involved was white. Johnson fled the country, then came back and served ten months in prison. His conviction, then and now, was widely regarded as motivated more by race than by evidence.

"I had admired Jack Johnson's prowess in the ring," McCain said, "And the more I found out about him, the more I thought a grave injustice was done." Representative Peter King and filmmaker Ken Burns are also calling for a pardon.

Presidential pardons of dead people are rare, but there is much to suggest that the case against Johnson was rigged. Justice late is better than justice never. Relatives of the old champ are still alive, and I'm sure they'd agree with that.

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